Saturday, October 10, 2009

Update on Dell Mini with OSX

It's been six months, so I thought I would do a quick update on my Dell Mini.

What works

  • It's small and light weight: I travel frequently and its nice to be able to stick a notebook in my purse/backpack/grocery bag.  In contrast, my MacBook Pro (the old 15 inch model) weighs around  7-8 lbs with the power supply and requires a laptop bag.
  • It's powerful enough: I typically have 10 -15 apps running at the same time.  This includes MS Office, Eclipse, Apache, Postgres, a couple of browsers, Thunderbird, Colloquy, Tweetie, Evernote,  Python stuff, java web apps, text editors - the list goes on.  If things go pear shaped, it's usually a browser hogging all the memory.  I recently built the GeoTools library and I think the Dell Mini did it in under 20 minutes.  I would have never believed that I could do my typical workflow with a 1.6 GHz processor with 2 GB of RAM.
  • 32 GB of disk is sufficient: I thought that 32gb would be cramped, but I have yet to run out of disk space.  I don't think I've dipped below 5gb of free disk space, but I do cheat a little and use the 16gb SDHC card for storing big files.
  • Wireless works everywhere: With my MacBook Pro, I have dead spots in my house.  This is understandable because my house is old with brick walls and with non-load bearing walls covered with plaster over a wire mesh.  I don't have this problem with the Mini, I get WiFi in every part of the house.
  • Decent battery life: I can easily squeeze out 3 hours of work using the standard battery on a flight between San Antonio and DC, which is a 3.5 hour direct flight.
  • SD card:  Being able to copy photos from the SD card on my camera to Flickr or just on to my drive is teh awesome.  No additional cables needed.
  • Fast boot: So I have to hard boot on occasion, especially if sleep decides to throw a tantrum.  At least I don't have to wait very long, usually under 20 seconds.

What doesn't work

  • Form factor:  Its friggin small, so I use a USB keyboard, a wireless mouse and an external monitor to be productive.  Using Spaces to organize the workspace sort of helps, but nothing beats a big screen.  I've gotten used to the Mini keyboard, but I still prefer the Apple external USB keyboard when I 'm  working.  I installed Melkort's touch pad drivers, but the gestures are not the same; i.e. one finger scrolling on the mini vs 2 two finger scrolling on the MBP.  The keyboard and external monitor are really helpful, but I can work without any of these things, if need be.
  • Sleep:  Sleep used to work flawlessly, now it can be a crap shoot.  Sometime after the 10.5.7 update sleep started acting up.  Not a big enough deal to spend time tracking down a fix though.
  • Watching movies: I've tried several versions of VLC and ran through all the fixes in the forums, but it still has halting problems.  Also sound is bleh at best, even with headphones or external speakers.  Really harshed my nostalgia when watching Space Above and Beyond.
  • Monolingual:  Using Monolingual to slim down the install proved to be a case of being to clever for my own good.  Turns out that I did need some of those printer drivers and superfluous architectures.  I spent a couple hours debugging a make file before I realized that I only had an i386 architecture and that I need to remove the other architectures from the make file.
  • N270 processor does not support virtualization:  This is the biggest thorn in my side with no work around.  More often than not, I have to look at stuff on a different OS; so  I use Virtual Box (gave up on Parallels) on the MacBook Pro.
For what it's worth, I haven't applied the 10.5.8 update but apparently my 10.5.7 update instructions work.  I did upgrade to the dellefi1.2.5a which got Melkort's touch pad drivers to work. Other than that, there have been no changes to the system since the 10.5.7 update.

I've use the Dell Mini as my primary machine for six months under heavy use.  My 15" MacBook Pro is used mostly for running other operating systems and watching movies.  Given that the MBP is 6 times more expensive than the Mini in its current configuration, leads me to question the conventional wisdom about buying the most hardware you can afford.  I think that this goes to show the OSX performs quite well with modest hardware.

So far, the advantages of portability outweigh the Mini's shortcomings.  However, that hasn't stopped me from eyeing the 13" MacBook Pros, which would do everything I need, just not in such a small package.

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